Clashing Convictions

Science and Religion in American Fiction

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Albert H. Tricomi
Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies
  • Columbus, OH: 
    Ohio State University Press
    , August
     2016.
     248 pages.
     $84.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780814213063.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Clashing Convictions: Science and Religion in American Fiction, by Albert H. Tricomi, examines the ways in which American novels from the late 18th to mid 20th centuries, on the subject of religion and science, have impacted culture, history, and society. Following the methodology of cultural historicism, Tricomi unpacks the way the cultural artifact—the novel—is embedded in and contributes to our historical knowledge. He accomplishes this by devoting most chapters to in-depth explorations of how specific works of fiction—largely in chronological order—have influenced the history of religion-science conflict in America. The “religion” in question, though not explicitly stated, is singularly Christianity; the “science” varies, from compatibility perspectives to secularist ideologies and from medicine to evolution.

Part 1 focuses on the internal struggles and reconciliations regarding religion’s position in respect to science, addressing evolution, biblical higher criticism, and the expanding domains of academia. Tricomi uses the Victorian canon as a comparative basis and historical context for the American fiction under consideration. Part 2 looks at the scientific response, specifically from a secularist ideological stance, to biblical literalists with an emphasis on conflict-related positions and the alleged affirmation of the victory of science over religion.  Part 3, consisting of one chapter, examines fundamentalist responses and challenges to science via creation science and intelligent design. Tricomi’s work concludes with a somber note on the contemporary disappearance of culturally influential religion-science novels due to the ideologically polarized populous and the lack of culturally strong moderate views.

In Tricomi’s words, “this study strives to make its contribution to an interdisciplinary intellectual history through the lens of American fiction” (17). While his work fulfills this aim by addressing literature, history, culture, society, religion, and science via the novel, I found the context of “clashing convictions” more restrictive than necessary, while also being a dated point of view in the field of religion and science. Clashing Convictions could benefit from a wider consideration of the context of religion-science relations. While the author did, indeed, provide many caveats regarding the conflict thesis, more recent work in method and theory in the study of religion and science deemphasizes conflict or even dismisses it as a discursive myth (e.g., Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion, University of Chicago Press, 2015).This issue could be resolved by treating the term “religion” much more constrictively. As is, it is not specified as the Christian religion, even though the arguments and the perspectives presented only apply to Christianity and, furthermore, only to specific movements within and discursive constructs of Christianity. This should be made explicit. Treating the term “religion” restrictively in this way would allow for Tricomi’s emphasis on the religion-science “clash.”

This lack of clarification results in another shortcoming of this book. Tricomi claims that, following 1960, there are no significant works of fiction on the religion-science relation (181). However, the 1960s through the present day has been a very prolific time for religion-science movements in society and culture, though perhaps not so much for Christianity. For example, the 1960s and 1970s was an explosive time period for the consideration of Buddhism-science relations from professional to popular spheres, making appearances in notable Hugo-Award-winning fictional works—which additionally contain Christian themes—including Robert Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune (one of the best-selling science-fiction novels in the world), and Roger Zelazny’s 1967 Lord of Light. These three examples are chosen from the genre of science fiction alone, and, thus, more examples would presumably be forthcoming if we cast a wider net.

Yet, these critiques do not take away from the overall value of Clashing Convictions and its applicability to many different fields and perspectives. The international applications are noteworthy given its contribution to the comparative study of British and American perspectives on religion-science relations in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. This is particularly valuable when one considers the lack of studies on the American novel addressing religion and science at this time. This is, however, a relatively minor contribution compared to the much larger interdisciplinary contributions, as Tricomi’s work has merit for the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse analysis. This perspective is very much in accord with cultural historicism via the observation of objective-subjective recursive production of knowledge, or, taking it one step further, the lack of such a dichotomy in the construction of the historical “fact.” This is particularly evident in the changing views of what constitutes “religion”—literal vs. allegorical; open vs. closed knowledge system, and so forth—as part of a reaction to the social, political, and didactic roles of science. Taking a step back, it is not hard to find merit in Tricomi’s Clashing Convictions with its contributions to the fields of religion and science, American literature, cultural history, and the sociology of knowledge.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura J. Vollmer is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Albert H. Tricomi is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at Binghamton University (SUNY).

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